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The attention economy: what it is, what it’s doing to you

Written 30 May, 2019, 6 minutes to read

Think of your most valuable commodity. Chances are that attention isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. But to companies all around the world, there’s nothing more valuable, and they spend millions trying to capture it. Technology has evolved to take advantage of us and it does it surreptitiously, taking advantage of aspects of our psychology. But it’s created something even more sinister in its wake: an environment of perpetual digital distraction. Here’s what to know about the attention economy – and how to break free from it.

What is the attention economy?

In recent years, the boom in digital content has led to a clash for control between companies: a fight for our attention. This is the attention economy and, according to Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, it’s “shaping everything about contemporary life”. It’s a world we all live in – even if we don’t know it.

At its simplest, companies are targeting our attention to make money. They’re placing ads they know might interest us and try to grab as much of our focus as possible. Technology has been engineered to hook us – not to keep us entertained or blindly serve our best interests, but to increase the inventory of ad space a company can sell. What we’re really seeing, when those ads pop up saying “other things that might interest you”, is a market war led by major companies in Silicon Valley.

The digital world is monopolized by three companies: Google, Apple, and Facebook. But Google, Apple and Facebook don’t care about you as a person; they care about their revenue, which means they care about holding your attention. Their ultimate aim is to keep you scrolling and searching, using their products over competitors’.

It’s all in the money

Advertizing is what makes these huge platforms their billions. Your viewing history is tracked for the sole purpose of showing you tailored content, whether it’s the news that Facebook shows you or the ads that appear on Instagram. By using information like the time we spend on a site or our click-through rate, these companies can control us, and the more we participate, the more powerful their control.

But our attention is a cunning resource – it learns to tune into interesting, unpredictable information in our environment and pass over normal, predictable parts. So the more “used” we are to seeing tailored ads, the less effective they become at holding our focus. Sadly, this has led to attention economy tactics becoming increasingly aggressive. Videos now autoplay onYouTube, Netflix and Facebook, and songs are played in video games to craftily permeate our consciousness.

There’s no moral fiber to be found in the attention economy. All these progressively forceful tactics exist just so people spend more time on platforms. It’s not about our intentions or why we’re on these sites; it’s about tapping into our impulses and trying to dominate them. And as such, companies who compete in the attention economy often do so with little regard for the effect it has on our wellbeing.

What the attention economy is doing to you

Let’s explore a few of the consequences the attention economy has for us – the consumer.

Culture of perpetual distraction. Pings, pop-ups, notifications – on average, people check their devices 80 times a day, whether it’s WhatsApp, email or Slack messages for work. It takes more than 20 minutes to get back into the flow once you’ve been interrupted, so even just “one little look” can have a huge consequences for our focus. Since we’re constantly distracted, it’s impossible for us to create the conditions for concentrated “deep work”, which provides real meaning and work satisfaction.

Passive consumption over intentional reward. From inboxes to newsfeeds, the apps we use on a daily basis are formed around a space that is eternally updating with new information. It’s this fear of missing out – of leaving someone’s message in the ether, or falling behind on a trending topic – that makes our us routinely “check-in” throughout the day. And it’s lead to a state of passive interaction with our tools; we turn to them to consume, rather than to create or solve a set problem. To be truly productive, we need to be intentional about how we use our tech – but too often it becomes our crutch.

An “unhealthy” relationship with devices. Most of us don’t feel good about how much time we spend on our phones. It makes us feel bad about ourselves, and we have a growing feeling that it's not "healthy". So what do we do? We pick up our phones again, either to distract ourselves from this sense of unease, or to lift our spirits – by posting a picture and getting likes.

Mindless social media scrolling. No one actually plans to spend time on social media. When structuring our day, we don’t say, “I’ll spend two hours scrolling through Facebook.” There’s no intention behind it, no purpose, so the action will always be hollow, devoid of meaning or any inherent value.

Toxic psychology. Research suggests that the psychology behind ‘likes’ is very powerful. A survey in the New Statesman found that 89% of people surveyed acknowledged that the number of likes they got made them happy… yet a further 40% confessed this pleasure stopped as soon as the likes stopped. If getting likes is easy and delivers a significant dose of dopamine to our brain, where can we find similar happiness beyond our screens?

Regaining digital control

But it’s not all doom and gloom! While it can take extreme effort, there are steps we can take to regain control of our focus and create space for a more meaningful day.

Knowing how much time we spend on these platforms is the most powerful first step – because most of us have no idea how much time we really waste on Facebook. Some devices track the time you spend on them, but consider getting a robust solution for your desktop too – after all, this is likely where you do most of your work. A smart automatic time tracker can show you exactly where your digital time goes – down to the time you spend in different apps and websites. Seeing where your time goes can be an important wake-up call, helping you become more intentional about your time. But time tracking can be a useful long-term tool: by monitoring your digital activity, you can ensure you are actually in control, stay accountable and create space for quality work.

Once you’ve become mindful of where your attention is going, you can start taking measures to liberate yourself from distracting technology. Quit apps that aren’t adding any value to your life (or at least trial quitting them!), get an ad blocker, and change your notification settings so you are in control of when you want to receive them. Many people set “availability hours” for email and Slack, so people know when they can contact them and when to expect a response. It’s all about creating the conditions for focused, uninterrupted work – keeping low-value tasks and disruptive requests in a small container.

Of course, it’s not the victim’s responsibility to protect against this. The platforms competing in the attention economy need to be held accountable for the impact they’re having on our wellbeing. Many are beginning to acknowledge the consequences of their actions (think of Apple’s “Screen Time”, which shows users how long they’ve been interacting with their product). But it’s unlikely that these powerhouses will want to admit to it. As consumers, we can press them to do better by us with direct feedback, or vote with our feet and switch to alternative products that support us better. Ultimately, when designing products, these companies need to start making an important human decision: whether to contain or enable their users.

Which tasks are actually worth your attention? Outsource the low-value work that gets you nowhere.

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